Odd that “work” is on my mind at the beginning of the July 4th weekend. You can’t study the Civil War without being constantly reminded of slavery, and henceforth, “work.” Slavery was about labor that must be performed by someone if crops are to be harvested. As I think about my next writing project, it is going to be anchored again in a social context where work is demanded, and how that work is distributed says something about how we think about various people groups. Issues of social and economic class, education, skin color, and culture are all tied to this notion of work: how we work, what we work for, what we value in work practices, and how work is related not only to leisure, but recreation (those two are not the same.) And of course, work is at the heart of justice and injustice, being tied to practices that define the relationship between ownership, labor, and compensation for work done.
In physics, work is the transfer of energy from an agent to an object. A baseball pitcher works on the ball by transferring energy from his body to the ball. A golfer works on the golf club by transferring energy from his body to the club, which then works on the ball. I think of all work just like this; human energy dispersed onto the world in ways that are creative, practical, necessary, helpful, and healthy. Of course, there is also energy dispersed in destructive ways; tearing down is work as well.
Economies revolve around “goods” and “work.” There is great despair over the inability to work, be it because of disability, injustice, or laziness. Work is at the core of what it means to be alive, to stay alive, to make living worth while. There is an “ethic” to work, and different cultures define it differently. According to a 2008 Forbes article, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development came up with rankings that placed South Korea at the top of the list of hard-workers in the sense that they work the longest hours, and the Dutch are at the bottom of the list because they work the fewest–about 27 per week. Attitudes concerning vacation and rest are all over the map.
Here’s the thing. How we relate ourselves to the concept of work is at the core of our thinking about what life is and what it means.
But when was the last time you heard anyone talking about how great work is? About how much fun they have when they were working? About how thrilled they are to get up and go at it everyday?
I’ve said all this to ask one simple question, and I’ll leave you to ponder this over your long July 4th holiday weekend.
If someone were to ask you to explain or define your work ethic, the one you actually live and work by, what would you tell them?
What is your work ethic, and how do you go about demonstrating it?